Leashing the Gorilla: Tackling Sexual Abuse by Not Tackling Sexual Abuse in Netflix’s Tell Me Who I Am

Tell Me Who I Am is a remarkable, almost unbelievable story that, paradoxically, is also everyone’s story. Briefly, with spoilers, it’s the true story of two twins, Alex and Marcus, who were raised in a huge Tudor house in the Home Counties (outside London) by a British aristocratic couple. At the age of 18, Alex is in a motorcycle accident, seriously injures his head, and winds up in a coma. When he regains consciousness he has total amnesia with one exception: he remembers his twin brother Marcus. The rest of his memory never returns, and this void leaves him wholly dependent on Marcus to fill it. At first, Marus reintroduces him to the fundamental meanings and functions of household objects; after a few months of this, the twins move onto family history.

Despite the obvious anomalies in their situation—the two boys are not allowed independent access to the house and sleep in a shed in the garden—the picture Marcus paints of their childhood is idyllic and free from strife, and this idealized picture goes unquestioned by Alex for over a decade. Eventually, it begins to dawn on Alex that Marcus has given him a false version of their childhood, and that the truth is altogether different: a horrific, ongoing experience of being sexually abused by their mother and trafficked to her aristocratic associates (including an unnamed famous artist).

The reason I suggested Tell Me Who I Am is really the story of everyone is not because of these dark details (though they certainly invoke my own childhood experience, albeit, as for Alex, mostly shrouded in amnesia) but because of the particular way the painful truth is concealed. In the model provided by Donald Kalsched’s invaluable The Inner World of Trauma, Marcus becomes Alex’s “guardian”—the progressed part of a fractured psyche that keeps the secret of the trauma safely under wraps.

At the same time, in more familiar lingo, Alex is like Marcus’ “alter”: his trauma-generated social identity that remains in amnesiac bliss but functions adequately in total ignorance of the truth it is designed to keep suppressed. Through Marcus’ expert coaching, Alex even meets his old friends and resumes a sexual relationship with his girlfriend, supposedly without any of them suspecting that he no longer has any memory of them!

The first two acts of Tell Me Who I Am are powerfully moving and totally gripping (the whole film consists only of the twins speaking, with some family photographs and recreated scenes). They are also psychologically compelling. Even after Alex discovers the base-truth that they were sexually abused by their mother, Marcus refuses to give Alex (or us) any more details about it. This is because Marcus has himself used the opportunity presented by Alex’s amnesia to create his own crucial fiction. He has assembled a shared bubble of fantasy in which the abuse never happened. So for Marcus to fully recount the traumatic events would mean having to re-own them, all over again, and this is too painful for him.

As the film presents it, Marcus only finally tells Alex the whole truth via the process of making the documentary, and the opportunity presented by the filming. It is here, in the third act, that the film takes what, for me, amounts to a dangerously wrong turn.

When Alex and Marcus have the conversation that they were never able to have before, on camera, we are aware that it is only happening under these conditions, for the sake of the film. It is apparent at once that the twins are aware of being filmed, and naturally enough they seem self-conscious about it. It’s also very obvious—to me at least—that these are far from optimal conditions for such a conversation to happen in. And while Marcus finally reveals the details of their abuse to Alex, the whole conversation is literally staged, and compared to what has come before it feels artificial, contrived, and superficial. This final act depicts the archetypal integration drama, the two halves of the psyche coming together (the twins hug at the end); but it feels less than fully cathartic and it fails to provide the profound resolution which the film has created the necessity for. It feels perfunctory, slightly forced.

Related to this problem is the way film focuses on the relationship between the brothers to such an extent that it makes the revelations about their family history seem almost incidental. The secret of their abuse is made relevant primarily within the schemata of the barrier the secrecy creates between them, rather than the actual impact—and implications—of such abuse. The suggestion is that it is enough for Marcus to tell Alex what he remembers for the split within their psyches—the traumatic wound—to be healed.

But Marcus himself has, for his whole life, taken the position that he doesn’t need any kind of therapy or deeper exploration to resolve his trauma or for him to be happy. Shutting it away, he says, has worked fine for him; it has not prevented him from having an interesting life or a good marriage. As a result of this conviction, he discloses the truth to Alex with great reluctance, purely in order to restore trust between them but without believing in any real utility of facing the truth. And just as he passed on his own fake version of their childhood to Alex, it may be that he is also transmitting this fundamental belief to Alex, in the process of (as a condition of) sharing the secret.

But for some of us—and I would think for anyone familiar with these patterns of aristocratic sexual abuse—Marcus’ version of events raises more questions than it answers. The film wants Marcus’ eventual disclosures to his brother to signify, not the beginning of a journey of discovery regarding the dark reality they were born into, but the end of that journey. Nothing to see here, folks, now the dark family secret is off Marcus’ chest. But it occurred to me after the film was over that, what Marcus, Alex, and the filmmakers are doing, in the third act of the film, is creating a second crucial fiction to replace the first one, even while seemingly dissolving it. This new fiction is a more sophisticated one, but it serves the same function: that of a defense against consciousness of trauma.

Crucial fiction # 1 was the amnesiac fantasy that no abuse occurred, at all. Crucial fiction # 2 is the partially conscious rationalization that, while abuse happened, there is no real need to re-experience it or to understand what it was, why and how it occurred, and what sort of effect is has had on their lives. The past is the past and sleeping dogs are best left to lie. As a result, the real horror of the consequences of the abuse, on the psyches and bodies of both twins, remains largely unaddressed.

In my experience, the only way to get free of the dissociated fantasy version of reality that protects us from traumatic memory is to move all the way into and through the “gory” details of what happened. The secrets are in the body, after all, and no degree of cognitive amnesia changes that. So at the very least, we have to be willing to return there (to the evidential body), because to put our attention on the facts, the physical reality of it all, is the only way to sift through the wreckage of the trauma and familiarize ourselves with the charred earth of the past, and hence to move past the (functional) delusion of our protective fantasy. To leave the matrix means gazing on the desert of the real. Until we do, our projections continue to come between us and the present—not (only) as conscious lies, but as unconscious, psychosomatic, and emotional patterns of resistance, avoidance, denial, and defense.

After watching Tell Me Who I Am (on Halloween night), I was left wondering what kind of somatic traumata (body-affect) making this film must have brought up for the twins that wasn’t addressed during the filming, and that isn’t included in the finished product—material that will probably take them years to fully process. How are they with it now, and with each other now (and with their wives)? Certainly, making the documentary presented an opportunity for them to bring all sorts of unresolved issues to light. But it describes the beginning of an awakening and no more. Trying to present it as the end—as if the whole story was simply how one twin protected the other from a painful truth and then found the courage to fully reveal it—leaves us suspended between dream and waking, or life and death.

The real story is so much more than this: what is the full truth behind the boys’ abuses, and how can they both live with it? This is the story that remains mostly untold, because only the surface of it is scratched. It is like uncovering a hand or a foot in one’s garden and then, instead of continuing to dig, piling dirt back on it and planting some flowers. 

What sort of systematic abuse these two boys were born into and enmeshed within is hardly a minor question, considering what we now know about the British aristocracy’s involvement in organized sexual abuse and child trafficking. Yet the question is pretty much shut away inside a closet by the end of the film. This seems to me symptomatic of a deeper problem which the film fails to address and therefore risks perpetuating: there is now a pretty well-established rhetoric around sexual abuse. A few buzz-phrases, some tears and heartfelt words, and we may feel we are getting the full picture, and that the resolution is at hand. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Creating familiar cultural signifiers around sexual abuse is like putting a leash on a sleeping gorilla. It might seem like we have a handle on the situation. But try pulling on that leash, and see what happens next.*

* Ironically, some viewers have claimed to have been “wrecked” after watching the documentary. Probably most people are currently unable to handle a raw and honest presentation of the reality of sexual trauma; but if so, this is partially because they continue to have that reality (and their own awareness) cushioned by the cotton wool of these prematurely restorative, corporate-sponsored entertainment narratives.

 

1 thought on “Leashing the Gorilla: Tackling Sexual Abuse by Not Tackling Sexual Abuse in Netflix’s Tell Me Who I Am”

  1. I agree wholeheartedly with your sentiments regarding the documentary. It’s frustrating that so much is left unsaid and unexplored. For me, the part about looking through their mother’s things and finding the photograph of themselves as boys, but with their heads chopped off, was especially disturbing and desperately needed to be delved into, and I wonder if it suggests some form of satanic ritual abuse or trauma-based mind control (or combination of the two). The nature and extent of the abuse that the brothers were subjected to as minors, who was involved, and precisely why they were used in this way (clearly not only for sexual gratification on the part of the abusers) are matters that need to be looked at.

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